Monday, July 29, 2013

Pangani Forest Exploration Trail

In the Africa section of Animal Kingdom, they have a nice walking path called Pangani Forest Exploration Trail.  This path takes you through a more "zoo-like" area of Animal Kingdom so that you can see more of the animals in the park.

Here are some examples of animals that you will see:

One of the things that I love about Animal Kingdom is that you get really good views of the animals.  The Pangani Forest Trail is no exception, and I think it is one of the best examples of how up close and personal you can get to the animals while visiting Animal Kingdom.

The best time to go is early in the morning right when the park opens.  The trail can get crowded with lots of people up at the front of the barricades trying to see the animals.  In the mornings, the trail is almost empty, and we are able to see everything very well.  Another added bonus to being there first is that the animal experts are usually free to answer any questions, or to give more information about animal behavior.  The third reason to go in the morning is that the animals are fed in the mornings and so are more active.  For instance, the gorilla was super active on the morning pictured above, and I was able to get tons of great pictures of him walking around.

I give this attraction a 4/5 or 8/10 stars.  I always wish these trails were a bit longer with more animals to see.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Sonoma Stole My Heart

When Mike and I were planning our honeymoon to San Francisco, we both insisted that we get a couple of days outside of the city to relax.  What better place to relax than wine country, right?  As soon as I told people that we would be going to wine country, I was inundated with recommendations for wineries, hotels, B&B's, etc.  Everyone has their favorite spot in wine country it seems.

After a lot of internet research, I settled on Sonoma, California for our two days of wine and rest.  The main draw was that Sonoma was the closest city to San Francisco.  While Healdsburg and Napa are not that much further away, I didn't want to have to drive any further than necessary.  I also wanted something that was quaint and not filled with tourists and I had read that Sonoma was just such a place. 

When we first drove into "downtown" Sonoma and I was greeted with this site, I knew I had chosen wisely.

How cute is this city hall?  Directly to the right of city hall is this magnificent site, perfectly accentuated by an almost full moon.
The whole town was beautiful and everything you needed was within walking distance.  We stayed at a hotel right in Sonoma, The Ledson Hotel, which I will review on the blog in the future.  Staying in Sonoma was a bit more expensive, but the nice thing for us was that we didn't have to drive anywhere.  We could walk to all of the wineries' tasting rooms in the city.  There are also FABULOUS restaurants in Sonoma, all within walking distance. 

My favorite thing was that a block away from our hotel was a general store that sold wine, cheese and crackers.  They had the absolute best cheeses.  You could go in and sample the cheese too!  I made a fool of myself with the cheese.  We settled on a habanero cheddar and had the perfect snack in our hotel after a long evening of wine tasting.

I will be posting a lot on Sonoma in the coming months from our hotel recommendation to wineries, but for now I just wanted to post about how calming two days in Sonoma was for us.  We had the best time and left feeling totally rejuvenated.  We have often talked about our next trip to Sonoma and I can't wait for that.

And if any Bachelor fans need a further push to visit Sonoma, I give you Bachelor Ben's winery...
Down this row of beautiful ivy covered arches is the Envolve winery, which is owned by Bachelor Ben.  Funny side story, on our second afternoon in Sonoma, Mike was really tired and took a nap.  I got antsy and decided to explore the town.  I had this grand dream of going into the Envolve tasting room, sitting down to the bar to sip wines by myself and getting Bachelor Ben to spill all the Bachelor's dirty secrets to me over a nice chardonnay.  So, I went into the tasting room and there was no one there because it was 10:30 A.M.  There was this guy working with his back turned to me, and I had a panicked moment of it actually being Bachelor Ben.  What would I say?  Would I look like a complete weirdo drinking by myself before 11:00 A.M.?  So, I turned around and RAN down this nice cobbled street like a lunatic and then stood there wondering if I should go back and check if the man inside was Bachelor Ben. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Ghost of Booth

I was looking at photos from my recent trip to Washington D.C. and I came across this photo which freaked me out!  My mom and I toured Ford's Theater while we were in D.C.  I was extremely excited about this tour as I had never been to Ford's before and had just finished reading the book Killing Lincoln.

With everything fresh in my mind from reading the book, the tour was kind of amazing.  Inside the actual theater, the box seat is set up to look exactly how it did on the night that Lincoln visited and was killed by John Wilkes Booth.  It was from this box seat that Booth shot President Lincoln and then jumped over the balcony to the stage.  

How freaky is this photo?  It looks like I captured the ghost of John Wilkes Booth.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Green and White Stripes

When I was planning a recent trip to New Orleans, all I thought about was the food.  The restaurant scene in New Orleans is no joke.  We ate and drank almost the entire trip, and everything we had was delicious.  During my research I quickly realized that we could not possibly go to every place that I wanted.  I had to be discriminatory and brutal.  I wanted the best of the best and at the end of our trip I knew that I did well.  

One non-negotiable in my itinerary was a trip to Cafe du Monde.  I have heard so many people talk about their beignets and I was looking forward to trying them myself.  Can I make a confession?  I cannot say the word "beignet" properly.  I took years of French class and was always praised for my near perfect diction.  But I cannot say beignet, so ordering at Cafe du Monde was intensely embarrassing.  

Anyways, here is the iconic Cafe du Monde:
At Cafe du Monde, you seat yourself.  There are a ton of tables under the awning and in the building, but the place is always pretty busy.  If you want a table that's right on the edge of the awning where you can people watch, you need to either get there at 3:00 A.M. or wait it out.  

Once you sit down, a waiter will come and take your order.  The only food on the menu is beignets.  You can get a coffee, milk, soda or orange juice.  It's kind of crazy that a place with only one thing on the menu can be this busy.  Another confession that I have to make is that I have never loved beignets.  Before Cafe du Monde, I had tried beignets a few times and never understood the fuss.  I don't really love powdered sugar, and beignets are basically doughnut pillows covered in powdered sugar.  Not my jam.  

Mike and I ordered just one plate of beignets to split.  There are three beignets per order.  When the plate came, we quickly dug in.
To my pleasure, these were nothing like the beignets I had before.  They were warm and soft and the sugar was stuck onto the doughnut so it didn't fall all over my dress.  I was in heaven and then Mike and I had to duel for the third one.  We did the right thing and split it in half, but I would be lying if I didn't say that I really wanted it for myself.  

When the plate was empty I felt like crying.  I wanted more, but my waistline said that 1.5 was enough.  It's tough listening to my hips.  This is a very sad plate.
If you can't find a table at the cafe, you can order beignets and coffee at the to-go counter.  These would be a great treat to take back to the hotel after a night of libations.  Just remember to get an extra order, you will thank me later!

Monday, July 8, 2013

Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular

Truth Squad: I have only seen two of the four Indiana Jones movies.  And one of them was the craptastic Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.  The other one that I have seen is The Last Crusade, which is why whenever anyone asks me my favorite Indiana Jones movie, I always respond with "The Last Crusade," and then the people always say, "Really, that one is my least favorite."  I have no excuse for not seeing the movies.  It just wasn't something I was interested in when they were popular, and now I have better things to The Real Housewives of New Jersey, on repeat.

At Disney's Hollywood Studios there is a pretty great stunt show featuring stunts from the Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark movie.  This show has been around since they opened the park in 1989 and not much has changed since then.  In all honesty, this is one of those shows that doesn't need any upgrades because it's pretty perfect just the way it is.

First, the theater is HUGE.  And shaded.  While it isn't air-conditioned, it's usually pretty cool because you are out of the sun and they have large fans going.  The show runs about 25 minutes, so it can be a nice respite from the midday sun.  They only run the show a few times per day, so you want to check the show times when you first get to the park. 

The show has some really great examples of extreme action stunt work.  I haven't seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, but even I can appreciate the famous scenes that they recreate before the audience.  I would even go as far as to say that what you see is incredible.  It really is that good.  There are choreographed fight scenes, pyrotechnics, audience participation (there is one gag in particular that gets me every time), and great acrobatics.  I have seen this show many times, and yet every time I notice something new. 

This really is an amazing show to see.  I wouldn't miss it during your trip.  5 out of 5 or 9 out of 10 stars. 

On a side note, one of the difficult things about Hollywood Studios is timing out your day.  There are several shows and parades that make it difficult to get everything in on one visit.  My expert advice is to plan on visiting the Studios at least twice during your visit.  I don't think you need to spend a full day either time, but it will make it easier to fit everything in if you space your visits on two separate days.  The Indiana Jones show is on an opposite end of the park as Lights! Motors! Action!, and I have noticed that they usually space the shows where you could only do one in the morning and one in the afternoon.  When you factor in walking time, time standing in line, and time waiting for the show to begin, it eats up at least an hour and a half of your time for each show.  To me it makes sense to spend two mornings at the Studios, or a morning and an afternoon so that you can fit everything in. 

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Asians Know Food

If I had to pick a favorite type of cuisine, it would definitely be "Asian."  I love all types of Asian food, whether it's Thai, Chinese, Korean, or Japanese.  I love it all!!!  One of my "must-eats" on any trip is to find a good Asian restaurant.  When we were planning our honeymoon trip to San Francisco last fall, I was so excited to experience Chinatown.  I read up on all of the good Dim Sum places to try out and finally settled on one that the guidebook said was good for novices.  I was definitely a novice at Dim Sum.  Minnesota has so many wonderful Chinese restaurants, but Dim Sum is not a big thing here. 

After walking around Chinatown all morning, we finally found the restaurant that the guidebook promised would be "excellent for novices."  We figured that 11:00 a.m. would be a good time to avoid the lunch crowd who would all be making fun of us because we didn't know how to order off the carts properly.  At 11:00 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, however, the restaurant was packed to the gills.  We were quickly lead to an empty table, and immediately the carts were rolling towards us.  The first cart that came to our table had the daily special, which was covered with a silver dome.  The cart driver pointed at a covered plate and asked if we wanted to try the special.  We had just sat down and had not come up with a pre-Dim Sum game plan, so instead of looking at the cart's offering we just nodded our heads and before we knew it this was plopped down in front of us:

This was our first tactical error (I'm talking about the seafood special dish and not the pork buns).  We did not really know what the dish was, and it ended up being flavorless and kind of icky.  It was also expensive.  I think it was around $17-$20, although they never actually tell you how much something cost at a Dim Sum.  They just stamp your ticket and then bring you a final bill at the end. 

After the seafood cart rolled away, Mike and I had a quick tactical discussion.  We only wanted dishes that looked appetizing and wanted to get mostly appetizers with no more main dishes.  At some point during that discussion the pork bun cart driver rolled by and I almost tackled him to get a plate.

After we got situated, the carts rolled fast and furious.  Soon we were inundated with delicious looking dishes and we had a table full of food.  I mean it.  Here was our table:
As we looked around at the other patrons' tables, we realized that most people just had one or two dishes on their tables and we looked like little piggies at the casino buffet.  It was embarrassing.

Our second tactical error was not telling the cart drivers "no" or "come back later."  Instead, we packed our table so full of food that there was no way we could finish it all.  I think once you start saying yes to everything, word spreads that you are suckers and then every cart comes to your table.  I think the pork bun cart came to our table 4 times. 

The real problem with this, besides wasting food, is that you have no idea what you are spending because none of the dishes are marked with a price.  I'm sure you could ask, but we didn't.  Our final bill was over $50!  Even in San Francisco, that is a lot to spend at lunch for two people.  We didn't even have booze.

I'm not sure that the restaurant we went to was good for the novice Dim Sum person, so I won't even name it.  There were tons of Dim Sum restaurants, and I think that anywhere you go you will probably have a good dining experience.  Unless you are a Dim Sum expert I would suggest going into a larger restaurant that looks like it has a good variety of food to choose from. 

My favorite dishes from the lunch were the aforementioned buns and the ribs and pot stickers:

I was somewhat disappointed in my first Dim Sum experience, but I think a lot of the disappointment came from how overwhelmed I felt while dining and the large price tag that the lunch had.  Next time I do Dim Sum I will go in with a better game plan and be firm in telling the cart drivers when I don't want something before our table gets loaded up again.  It was a fun life lesson and I don't regret going, it just wasn't my favorite meal in San Francisco.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

A Home in Charleston

Out of all of the cities in the United States that I have visited, Charleston, South Carolina, continues to be my absolute favorite.  There was something magical about the city that I cannot quite put my finger on.  I loved being by the water and watching the sailboats; I loved the food; I loved the historic character of the city; I loved touring all of the preserved homes and learning their history; I even loved the heat.  It was hot as balls in Charleston.  We visited in August, which was not the brightest idea I've ever had.  I distinctly remember the last day of our trip as being the hottest of them all.  We were going to walk quite a distance to get to an old house that you could tour and I figured that we'd just leave earlier in the morning before the heat really set in.  We left around 8:15 A.M. and the second you stepped outside, the sweat started trickling down your forehead.  That's real heat. 

When I was researching hotels for our stay in Charleston, I had one requirement.  That requirement was that the hotel MUST have a pool.  I could not imagine being in Charleston without a pool.  Surprisingly, there are not many hotels with pools in Charleston due to the historic nature of the city.  I did find one, The Mills House Hotel, which we booked immediately and then never once went to the pool.  We spent our afternoons napping in the air-conditioned room instead of being outside.  This is what happens when northerners visit the south in the summer.

The Mills House Hotel was a fabulous choice even though we did not use their pool.  Here's a look at the outside of the hotel:

The hotel itself has a rich historical background and it's pink.  I loved staying in a cute, pink hotel.  The rooms were a bit small, but comfortable.  While they were nothing super fancy, I thought they were clean and the A/C worked like a charm.  That's all you really need in Charleston.  Here's a view of the room     
Mike always jumps on the hotel bed before I can snap a picture.  There he is lounging right after check-in.  I think he does this because he knows that my travel itineraries rarely leave room for rest and relaxation. 
We never ate at the hotel, but we did enjoy a few cocktails in the hotel bar.  The bartenders there made a stiff drink!  Here I am on our first night enjoying a Campari soda.  The bar had kind of a cool Havana vibe with large chairs and these huge palm leaf fans. 
The most appealing part of the hotel was the great location.  We did not rent a car in Charleston, so ended up walking everywhere.  The Mills House Hotel was close to the water and close to Broad and close to King Streets.  It was easy to walk everywhere we wanted to go as the hotel is right in the heart of the city.  Normally, when we travel to a large city we do not rent a car.  I think that when we go back to Charleston in the future, I would rent a car because there are a lot of things to do outside of the city that we couldn't get to without taking a cab.  The hotel was great about setting up cabs for its guests, but cab rides add up.
I would give the Mills House Hotel 4 out of 5 stars.  I think the rooms could use a little updating and the pillows weren't the fluffiest, but I was able to sleep just fine.